One of the greatest issues facing athletes and weightlifters is the ability to stay healthy while lifting weights and training at a high level.
The most common setback I see in the gym is a shoulder injury. If you have played sports at any level or lifted weights for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced some type of shoulder pain. This is part due to the way people train and part due to the nature of the shoulder joint itself.
Before we get into the training issues and some ways to fix them, let me give you some background info on the shoulder.
Shoulder Anatomy 101
The shoulder is an extremely complex joint made up of three bones: the clavicle (collarbone), the scapula (shoulder blade), and the humerus (upper arm) as well as the associated muscles, ligaments and tendons.
The humerus loosely attaches to the scapula in a ball and socket type of joint that allows the arm to rotate in a circular manner or to hinge up and away from the body. The joint must be mobile enough to do a wide range of dynamic movements (think throwing a baseball), but also stable enough to lift heavy objects and push and pull. This compromise between mobility and stability opens up the door for a large number of shoulder issues.
Now, when most people think of the muscles of the shoulder, they probably think of the deltoids (anterior/front, middle, and posterior/rear) and the traps. While these are the biggest muscles of the shoulder and the ones that give that area of the body its shape, there are in fact many smaller muscles that are just as crucial to shoulder movement and health.
The Rhomboids and levator scapulae are muscles in the upper back that if left untrained allow the shoulder to slump forward and rotate inward - the classic “benchers shoulder”. The muscles of the Rotator Cuff are the supraspinatus, subscapularis, infraspinatus, and trees minor, all of which contribute to the stability of the shoulder. Often in our training, these muscles get overlooked and take a back seat to traditional shoulder exercises for the deltoids.
Let’s face it - a stability based exercise for the tiny rotator cuff muscle subscapularis doesn’t sound as sexy as doing a heavy shoulder press to build massive front delts. But it’s this line of thinking that leads to imbalances and injury.
Related: Troubleshooting the Overhead Press
Your Shoulder Solution
Here’s the plan. I’m going to teach you six exercises that are crucial to shoulder health and stability. I’m willing to bet that you will be amazed at how challenging these movements can be and how weak some of those small supporting-cast muscles have become due to neglecting them in your training.
The first three exercises I recommend doing daily as prehab. Incorporate them into your normal warm up (which should already include some good dynamic stretching!) and make a habit of completing the circuit before you pick up your first weight.
Daily Shoulder Prehab Warm Up Circuit
This one is all about mobility, or lack thereof. Take a seat with your back against a wall and your feet together in front of you with the soles of your shoes touching. Stretch your arms straight out at your sides with your thumbs up. The back of your hands and as much of your arms as possible should be touching the wall. Press your arms back into the wall and keep constant pressure as you raise them overhead slowly then back to starting position. Complete 12 quality repetitions.
2. Prone Raises
Start lying face down with your arms out in front of you in a “V” shape. Point your thumbs up and raise your arms off the ground while squeezing the muscles in your upper back. Complete 12 reps then rotate your thumbs downward for 12 additional reps. Last, bend your arms at 90 degrees with your thumbs pointing up and raise your arms as you squeeze your scapula together for 12 reps.
If you want to up the ante and incorporate some core stability, these 3 movements can also be done while laying across a Swiss Ball. Keep your lower back tight and focus on raising your arms as opposed to moving your torso.
While lying face down with your arms outstretched, flex your low back and glutes to slightly raise your torso and legs off of the floor. Keep your spine neutral by not looking up. Slowly perform a pressing movement, either with your hands empty or holding light (2.5 or 5lb) plates. Complete 12 reps.
Complete one round of the following circuit before each workout:
|Prone Raises (thumbs up)||12|
|Prone Raises (thumbs down)||12|
|Prone Raises (arms bent)||12|
Shoulder Stability and Strength Circuit
4. Serrano Press
This movement is the holy grail of shoulder stability and may be pound for pound the hardest dumbbell exercise known to man. First developed by my mentor Dr. Eric Serrano, this press hits every small muscle involved in stabilizing the shoulder - from the rotator cuff to the labrum - in addition to the big movers like the deltoids.
Start by lying face down on an incline bench set at 45 degrees. Take a light set of dumbbells (5lbers if you have never done this movement before) and rotate your shoulders so your arms are in line with your body. Extend both arms in a pressing fashion and keep one arm extended as you begin to perform iso-presses. Make sure that your arms are in line with the bench and your torso, and that your head and neck stay in a neutral position. Complete 5 iso-reps on each side.
5. Face Pulls
This exercise targets the rear delts to try and correct the shoulder imbalance many lifters have from prioritizing heavy bench and other pressing movements.
Take a light band and wrap it around a rack. Grab the band with your hands about a foot apart and palms facing downward. Pull towards your forehead and keep your elbows higher and behind your hands thru out the movement. Do 10-20 reps depending on the strength of the band. This exercise can also be accomplished using a triceps rope attached to a cable crossover or seated row.
6. Snow Angels
Remember the snow angels you made in the fresh snow as a kid? Well this is a similar motion for the upper body except you will start by lying face down. Keep your arms off the ground and palms down for the entire movement as you sweep them from overhead down to your legs and back. Work up to 12 reps with 5 or 10b plates.
Include 3 rounds of the following circuit after your normal lifting routine on back and shoulder days:
|Serrano Press||5, each side|
Now I’ve given you the tools to fix any imbalances you may have built over the years and also prevent any future injuries from occurring. But the real key to this shoulder stability program is like anything else - you have to be consistent!
Once you make this a regular staple of training, your shoulders will feel healthier and those little “tweaks” in training will not happen as often. Think of it as “mowing the lawn” - you may not notice it when it’s done, but you will definitely notice when you haven’t been doing it.